Don’t be clever.

Illustration by the exceptional Vic Bell

A startup’s guide to making promises

Just make a human promise, and keep it. This is a sentiment Seth Godin shared with me in an email correspondence.

If you can’t keep a promise, it really doesn’t matter how cool you are or how clever you are, your idea will be detached from an authentic purpose.

A promise is the bottom-line of a product. It’s the essence, the soul of the product. It infuses the product with meaning and value.

Mistaking product for promise creates (among others) two sticky problems:

  1. Regarding your product as your promise numbs you to the essential purpose of the product. In other words, you’d be trading in a clear, company-wide view of the problem you set out to fix — your promise — for a hit-or-miss approach of trying to figure out what customers expect of the product. This is designlessness.
  2. You also may resort to a one upmanship product-design model: designing your product by mostly looking at how your competitors are designing theirs. This can dull inspiration, innovation and creativity because you’re not actually connecting to your promise. You’re connecting to someone else’s. Your promise has now shifted to “we do what our competitors do.”

I was surprised to see how easily I myself fell into this trap.

Don’t (only) be clever. Make a human promise, and keep it. Stay true to your original idea, your promise. Staying true to this adage will protect you from a confused and arbitrary creative process, and from one upmanship. Bring joy and simplicity to your customer: don’t be clever, make a human promise and keep it.


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